Information: right or commodity?

The digital revolution triggered by new technologies has prompted news media to multiply and a growing demand for instant news, but, above all, the treatment of news as a commodity, the sale and distribution of which can reap great profits.

Today the media occupies new centres of power, its executives are businessmen and women and news services are quoted on the stock exchange. Committed figures, tied to journalism by vocation and with a reputation in their own right, are increasingly scarce in a context where the news shown is largely conditioned by its expediency or profits. The value of news is measured in audiences. Thus, news purportedly has no worth if it is not likely to interest the public. The stress is placed on providing impacting news, not reports on what really matters, with an obvious tendency towards entertainment news.

In view of this situation, professional journalists play an important role. Their voices of alarm carry weight and power in raising public awareness of the urgent need to recover the critical sense of the media and call for the impartiality of news programmes. They demand that the main objective be news excellence as a service for society and not purely a business-oriented factor, since information, they argue, is too fragile and important to be exclusively dealt with according to the laws of the market.

Paradoxically, despite the increasing number of news channels, today two big eyes, two big international news agencies decide what conflicts are important and how they should be reported on. Journalists have also warned that this phenomenon is leading to a “single point of view” with regard to the growing amount of information diffused internationally, leading to loss of the multiple points of view provided by the reporters working with different media.

Communication techniques too, above all mobile telephony and e-mail, have meant a radical change for correspondents as regards the way they work and relate to newspaper offices. Before, a war correspondent had specific times for communicating with headquarters and, meanwhile, had a wide margin of freedom to go about his or her work, time to seek out information, discover it, select it, develop it and verify it. Today editors-in-chief have sufficient sources to follow wars from their office chairs, to the extent that in some cases reporters simply confirm events at the place in question. Thus, the presence of televised media in wars is less tied to a search for true, committed information than it is to the advertising presence of their correspondents in these wars, as they themselves condemn. These same correspondents also argue that the growing demand for successive live connections during news programmes leaves them no time to do anything else in a day.

The profession of war journalism had it’s before and after marked by the Vietnam War. According to Phillip Knightley, a historian specialising in war correspondents, co-author of the book The Eye of War, in Vietnam “the US military accepted the correspondents and helped them in every way. Free from any censorship, they went where they chose, reported the truth as they saw it and, according to the military establishment, thus lost the United States the war.” This was the first war in modern history to be decided not on the battlefield but in the written and television media. From then on, the Pentagon decided to control and establish what the media can and cannot report.

The progressive abandon of war journalism implies a risk to all humanity. Journalists and reporters feel obliged to share their concern at the frailty of the profession “after a 150-year battle” – according to Phillip Knightley – “against the military, governments and their spin doctors”. It is essential to safeguard a profession that “gives a voice to the voiceless”, sheds lights on wars that could otherwise be ‘invisibilised’, and thus endeavours to avoid the risk of society pretending not to know about them. Aware of their limitations in solving the world’s ills and problems, reporters cling strongly to their commitment to bring conflicts to the forefront and prompt critical thought on their existence, accompanied by the desire to generate active awareness and foster change.

Justifying the importance of all these contributions, Ernest Hemingway’s wife Martha Gelhorn said: “All my reporting life, I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple. I don't need to worry about that. My responsibility was the effort.”

Sources: Los ojos de la guerra, articles by Ryszard Kapuscinski and Phillip Knightley, the testimonies of the documentary itself.

Film: The Eyes of War

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